If there was a passage of play in Scotland’s 2-0 win over Albania that served as a glorious vindication of Alex McLeish’s tactics and personnel choices it unfolded late in the second half.
Stephen O’Donnell strode down the right as he had done to good effect most of the evening. He was presented with the chance to shoot but chose to lay the ball off for Callum McGregor, whose shot was deflected just over the bar.
It wasn’t a goal – hey, we can’t be greedy. Scotland were already two up. But it was another riposte to those who greeted O’Donnell’s inclusion with surprise despite McLeish having already praised his contribution on the summer tour to Peru and Mexico, when he rated the Kilmarnock full-back one of the finds of that adventure.
With Ryan Fraser injured, many would have expected James Forrest to come into the side. But McLeish opted for the more defensive-minded O’Donnell. He did not let the manager down.
O’Donnell’s inclusion helped ensure Forrest did not taste any action at all in the two games against Belgium and Albania. McLeish made a point of reassuring the Celtic winger after Monday’s win.
“If I’d played him, I’d be getting questions about why I played him out of position,” McLeish said. “James can play there but it’s not his favourite position and he’s excelled with Celtic in the three forwards system.
“I was very aware of that and James was one of the few guys I got to speak to after the match as most were away seeing their families and stuff. I told him we wouldn’t be playing 3-5-2 all the times and there will be times when we need him in the wide areas.
“He can play wing back,” he added. “But there have been questions I’ve fielded about Kieran [Tierney] and Andy Robertson over the last few days.
“Kieran doesn’t want to play right-back. He’s not a right- back, he’s a left-back. If I play him at right back, he’s another one out of position. So, do I drop one of them and say it just doesn’t work? ‘You are two fantastic players, but you’re dropped.’”
McLeish did not need to explain himself. Whatever the methods, he got the result required. The under pressure manager was vindicated. He was certainly permitted some satisfaction as he watched O’Donnell, largely regarded as a gamble by observers, thunder by him in the rain in that second half. A drenched McLeish patrolled the same nearside touchline. For a spell in the first 45 minutes it was threatening to turn out as badly for McLeish as when Steve McClaren’s reign as England manager squelched to an end against Croatia in 2007.
Like any manager able to recall the McClaren ‘wally with a brolly’ episode, McLeish wisely eschewed asking for one to help protect him from the elements. Shortly into the second half, the outlook changed for the better.
Steven Naismith saw a header ricochet off an Albanian defender to put Scotland ahead and then the Hearts striker himself made sure of victory with just over 20 minutes left. The Tartan Army were singing in the rain. The old songbook was dusted down. McLeish’s second reign as Scotland manager had finally begun in earnest. Scotland are now unbeaten in their last seven meaningful fixtures, winning five of them.
McLeish admitted that it was a relief to be playing for something tangible after five straight friendlies where his plans were compromised by withdrawals. He was able to slip back into an old routine on Monday night. McLeish is clearly a manager who prefers the intensity of competitive action. He now feels in a stronger position to start making promises: he will persuade disaffected Tartan Army members to return by making Scotland attractive to watch.
“When I spoke to the players before, rather than speaking to them for three minutes before they went out, I did it at the hotel and told them: ‘this is the night where we sort it out’,” he reflected. “We’ve worked hard for this moment.
“A lot of it was about mentality because the talent is good and the athleticism is good. Now they have to rise against the pessimism that surrounds us and the only way I want Scotland fans to come back is because they want to see us – not because Belgium’s here or Portugal are coming.
“I want them to come here because of this team.”